Friday, April 30, 2010

For the Weekend: The Love of Lucy

I don't know about the rest of you, but Friday could not have gotten here fast enough this week.  So when I noticed there were a few movies from my all-time favorite actress on this weekend, it helped ease the long, long wait for my days off.  So, I present to you today, a few gems from the movie collection of Lucille Ball.

First up is a movie Lucy made long before her television success, "Annabel Takes a Tour" (on at 6am EST, Saturday on TCM).  Released by RKO in 1938, it is the second of two films starring Ms. Ball as Annabel Allison, a movie star with an outrageous publicity agent (Jack Oakie).  In "Tour," Ball goes on (what else) a publicity tour during which Oakie keeps thinking up crazy publicity schemes that get her into hilarious trouble, one after another.   Ball had become a contract player at RKO back in 1933, but the "Annabel" movies were the first films to really show Ball's comedic talent in a starring role.  The studio was hoping to make more "Annabel" movies, but unfortunately, Oakie asked too much money for the B-movie budget to continue.  It obviously didn't hurt Lucy's career.  Years later, her success allowed her to buy RKO with husband Desi Arnaz to create Desilu Productions.

Next, we have a film made long after Lucy's success had been solidified, "Yours, Mine and Ours" (on at 2pm EST, Sunday on TCM).  Produced by Desilu Productions in 1968, Lucy stars alongside one of her buddies from those early days at RKO, Henry Fonda.  (They even dated for a bit back when they were both unknowns.)  Lucy plays Helen North, a widow with eight kids, who falls in love and marries Fonda, a widower with ten kids.  It's a lighthearted family comedy based on a real-life couple, though the writers took liberties in creating tension and comedic situations that didn't exist in the real story, such as Frank and Helen hiding the number of children each had from the other when they first start dating.  It was a big hit, making over $17 million at the box office (the film only cost $2.5 million to make).  Unfortunately, Ball did not expect it to be such a success, and therefore never made a tax shelter for her profits, causing her to have to give most of it to the government.  (Also, thanks to this film's success, we got "The Brady Bunch.")

Finally, to see some drama from Lucy, I recommend "The Dark Corner" from 1946.  It's a gem of a film noir about a detective's secretary (Ball) who helps her boss hunt for the man trying to kill him.  This was produced by Twentieth Century Fox during Ball's contract fight with MGM.  She had moved over to MGM when she married Arnaz, but she was not at all happy there.  She sued MGM to break her contract, but during that process, MGM retaliated by reducing her pay and loaning her out to other companies.  Lucy said she hated filming this movie, because of director Henry Hathaway.  Hathaway bullied Ball so much during filming that she would sometimes stutter her lines, which caused Hathaway to berate her more, accusing her of being drunk.  "Corner" is worth seeing though, because Lucy gives a beautiful performance, even through all the off-screen torture.  "The Dark Corner" is now available on DVD and for instant viewing on Netflix.

So, enjoy the queen of comedy this weekend, in comedy or drama.  I'm sure you'll enjoy watching her either way.  Have a wonderful, relaxing weekend, and I'll see you Monday!

(Post-tidbit:  A young Tim Matheson plays one of Lucy's stepsons in "Yours, Mine and Ours."  Thanks to this, if you ever play "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," you can link Bacon and Ball together in two steps, because Matheson and Bacon were both in "Animal House" together.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

North by Northwest: TCM Classic Film Festival

I really do love living in LA sometimes.  This past weekend, as part of TCM's first Classic Film Festival, I got the pleasure of watching my favorite Hitchcock film "North by Northwest" up on the big screen in none other than Grauman's Chinese Theater.  And not only was that great - thinking of all those other films that have appeared there in the past and the stars who might have sat in the very seat I was sitting in before me - the screening was hosted by Mr. TCM himself, Robert Osborne, with special guests Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau.  As they came out to talk before the film, all three were cheered like rock stars by the hundreds of loving movie fanatics in the audience, me included.

"North by Northwest" (1959) is considered by many to be one of Hitchcock's finest.  The ever-brilliant and charming Cary Grant stars as Roger O. Thornhill, a New York advertising man who is accidently mistaken for a non-existent government spy by bad guy James Mason, sidekick Landau, and the rest of his crew.  Kidnapped, almost killed, and then chased over the US from New York to South Dakota, Grant tries to find out the truth while falling in love with the girl caught in the middle of it all (Saint).  It's a chase filled with some of the most iconic, suspenseful images in movie history, including the crop-duster scene in the middle of nowhere and the climatic perilous chase across the faces of Mt. Rushmore.

Originally titled "In a Northwesterly Direction" by screenwriter Ernest Lehman (who received an Oscar nomination for this), it was later changed to the non-existent compass direction "North by Northwest" when the title was suggested by MGM's head of their story department.  Hitchcock and Lehman planned on changing it again when they came up with a better one, but, alas, that title never came to them.  (Another failed title idea: "The Man in Lincoln's Nose.")

Cary Grant was always Hitchcock's first choice to play the lead role.  However, some have said Jimmy Stewart was his first pick.  That story's actually false.  After working with Stewart in "Vertigo," Hitchcock felt Stewart just looked too old on screen, unlike Grant.  So, his first choice and favorite leading actor got the role.  (By the way, Grant was four years older than Stewart.)

It was such a fun treat to listen to Saint and Landau talk about their experience making this film.  Saint talked about how she got part of Eve Kendall after having a lunch with Hitchcock.  She had been invited to lunch through her agent at the time.  When her mother heard about it, she told Saint to be sure to wear a beige outfit and white gloves, because her mother had heard somewhere that he really liked women who dressed that way.  So, easily enough for her (she "lived in beige" then), she put that outfit together, went to lunch, and got the part.  Working with Hitchcock was a nice experience for Saint, because he was the kind of director who really let the actors interpret their roles themselves.  Hitchcock only gave her three things to remember - "lower your voice, don't use your hands, and always look Grant directly in the eyes."

Saint, of course, had already established herself in Hollywood before "North by Northwest" thanks to her Oscar-winning performance in "On the Waterfront."  Landau on the other hand was still trying to make a name for himself at the time.  He was performing in a stage production of Paddy Chayefsky's "Middle of the Night" with Edward G. Robinson, when one night, Hitchcock came to see the show.  (In a funny coincidence, Saint pointed out that she did a production of "Middle of the Night" with Robinson as well, for "The Philco Television Playhouse" in 1954.)  After seeing his performance, Hitchcock invited Landau to the studio for a meeting.  He walked Landau around all the production offices, showing him the entire storyboard, and then finally turned to him and said "You're playing Leonard."  And thanks to the freedom Hitchcock gave his actors, Landau made a bold choice about his character that made his performance simply classic.  Because of the way he interpreted one of his lines, "call it my woman's intuition," Landau decided to play his character as gay.  It's a subtle performance that was the start of a great career.

This screening was truly an experience I'll never forget.  The bigger-than-life stars, the loving fans, the atmosphere.  It reminds me why I love movies so much.  If you ever have a chance to see your idols ten stories tall and in person, do it!  It's why movies were made, to magically sweep you away into another world.  Til Friday, everyone.  Have a wonderful week!

(Post-tidbit:  Hitchcock wasn't able to get permission from the UN to shoot at their buildings in New York City, so in one of the first versions of guerrilla film-making, Hitchcock hid a camera in a van across the street so he could shoot Grant and his pursuer getting out of their respective taxis to enter the UN.)

Friday, April 23, 2010

For the Weekend: Adventure is Out There

Ok, I know, I stole that line from "Up" (which I already wrote about) but "adventure is out there" pretty much sums up the theme of the films I chose for you for the weekend.  And who doesn't love adventure?

First up is "The Adventures of Robin Hood." (See, "adventure" is right there in the title!)  From 1938, it stars Errol Flynn as the famous do-gooder thief, Olivia de Havilland as his lovely Marian, the wonderful Claude Rains (and his beautiful voice) as the power-hungry Prince John, and Basil Rathbone as his right-hand man Sir Guy of Gisbourne.  Originally, this was to be a shot-for-shot remake of Douglas Fairbanks' "Robin Hood" from 1922, but many of the fight scenes would have been too expensive for Technicolor and sound.  They did, however, shoot on location at some of the same places the earlier version was shot (all in Southern California, by the way, not England).  This production still ended up being the most expensive movie Warner Bros. had ever made at that time, costing around $2 million.  They made their money back though, for this was a huge success, making over $4 million at the box office (during a time when it only cost a quarter to see the movie).

Originally, James Cagney was supposed to play Robin, but he had bought out his own contract to Warner Bros. just before filming, so he was replaced by Flynn.  If you have a good eye, you might recognize the horse Olivia de Havilland rides in "Robin Hood."  It's Trigger, from Roy Rogers fame.  Named "Golden Cloud" before, Rogers saw the horse on film and liked him so much that he bought him afterwards for his own films.  And all the stunt men in the film were actually being shot by real arrows.  Padded down with cushioning, steel breast plates, and balsa wood, each stunt man was shot by real professional archer Howard Hill, who can be seen as the archer Robin defeats during the tournament by splitting his arrow.  You can catch all the adventure and fun on TCM Saturday at 6pm EST.

Next up for adventure is "The Defiant Ones" (1958).  Not the "fun and games" adventure, but the "fleeing for your lives" adventure.  It stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as a couple of chain gang members who escape while still chained together.  And because one man is black and one man is white, there are complications.  Directed by Stanley Kramer during the beginning years of the civil rights movement in America, it garnered several Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor for both the leads, and Best Director.  It won for Best Writing and Best Cinematography (Black and White).  Elvis Presley wanted desperately to star in this film, mainly because he was hoping he could work with Sammy Davis Jr., who was originally cast.  But Elvis' manager advised him otherwise.  Robert Mitchum, on the other hand, turned down the movie because he didn't believe the premise.  Having been in a chain gang in the South himself, he stated that no white man and black man would be chained together, ever, in the South.  It's a great film that you should catch this Sunday on TCM at 1pm EST.

Finally, back to more lighthearted adventure, I have for you..."Ishtar"!  Dubbed as the biggest box office bomb ever created, it stars Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty as a couple of lounge singers who travel to Morocco for a new gig, only to get caught up in the middle of some Cold War fighting, much like the "Road" pictures of old.  This is one of those "it's so bad, it's good" movies that I think everybody should see just to say they have.  Costing $55 million to make, it only made $12.7 million at the box office.  Oddly enough, it was #1 at the box office in its opening weekend, but then plummeted once "Beverly Hills Cop II" came out the following week, losing $42 million in its total run.  Marred with production problems from the beginning, I guess it was one of those movies doomed from the start.  But check it out when you want to watch something silly.  It's not on DVD yet, but it can be seen on Hulu right now.

So, I hope you all like the choices I've picked out for you this weekend.  Have a wonderful, adventurous weekend, and I'll be back Monday with another one of my favorite films.  Later, gators!

(Post-tidbit: Story has it that the director of "The Adventures of Robin Hood," Michael Curtiz, told some of the players to take the safety tips off their swords so that the fights would be more exciting.  When Flynn found out about this, though, he climbed up the scaffolding where Curtiz was, took Curtiz by the throat, and said, "Exciting enough?")

Monday, April 19, 2010

Take Me Out to the Ball Game: Play Ball!...with Music

It’s baseball season again! Time to have fun watching America’s favorite pastime. Also, the perfect time for me to talk about one of my favorite baseball films, the musical “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Released in April 1949, it stars Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams, and Betty Garrett. Set in early days of baseball, Kelly and Sinatra play two star baseball players (who, during the off-season are vaudeville performers, of course), and Williams plays the new owner and manager of their team. Sinatra, playing the cute and innocent one at the time, falls for Williams, while everyone else is just annoyed a woman is now running the club. However, as Kelly tries to sabotage Williams to give up the team, he falls for her too. Don’t worry about Sinatra though. Wise-cracking, strong-willed Garrett falls for him.

I love baseball, and I think this film is one of the reasons why. I’m not a huge sports person. If someone else is watching a game of some kind, I’ll watch along with them and get into the spirit of the game. But I rarely hunt out games to watch on my own. Going to see a game in person is completely different though. That is so fun to me. And baseball games are my favorite. (College football is a close second, for those who know my family.) It’s the nostalgia of the event that I love so much, something that’s been going on in America for more than a hundred years now. Sitting there watching the game, relaxing while you eat your hotdog (or veggie dog), catching that bag of peanuts being thrown to you over 20 other people. I’m such an old-timey girl that it’s perfect for me. And “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is all about that nostalgia. Gene Kelly actually came up with the storyline himself, along with Stanley Donen, because they wanted to pay tribute to the early days of baseball. Harry Tugend and George Wells then perfected it into a screenplay, and Busby Berkeley directed it to a successful run. (It made $4 million at the box office…in 1949!)

Being a Gene Kelly film, there are of course great numbers throughout the movie, choreographed by Kelly and Donen. One of my favorites is “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg,” sung by Kelly, Sinatra, and Jules Munshin, the trio that would later that year make the classic “On the Town” together. This was the first film to pair the three gentlemen together, and their chemistry was kismet. This was the second film to pair Kelly and Sinatra together though, the first being “Anchors Aweigh” (1945). However, after “On the Town,” Sinatra mainly focused on breaking out of the naive characters he was playing, finally hitting the right mark with “From Here to Eternity” in 1953.

Esther Williams was not the first choice to star in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Originally, Judy Garland was asked, but due to her continuing unreliability resulting from her increasing drug use, she was dropped from the picture. June Allyson was then asked, but she became pregnant, resulting in “lesser-choice” Williams being cast. And it was impossible for Williams to forget that fact. In her autobiography, Williams said that making this movie was “pure misery.” Evidently, both Kelly and Donen treated her horribly, even making jokes at her expense. Being known for her swimming, Busby Berkeley had created a swimming number for Williams and Kelly to do together. But Kelly refused to do it, and instead a number titled “Baby Doll” was written for them. (It was later cut from the final film.)

And even though this movie has a lot of great songs, a soundtrack album was never created for it. Some of the stars did, however, record their own versions of a few of the movie’s tunes. Kelly and Garrett paired up to sing the songs “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “Yes, Indeedy.” Garrett, by herself, recorded “It’s Fate Baby, It’s Fate.” And Sinatra recorded the lovely ballad “The Right Girl for Me.” Another song sung by Sinatra that you may recognize, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” was a song cut from "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."  Written by Rogers and Hammerstein, this ballad was originally supposed to be part of “Oklahoma!” but was cut out of the production. Later, MGM producer Arthur Freed bought it for Judy Garland to sing in “Meet Me in St. Louis” but that idea was scrapped too. Finally, it was decided to add it to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for Sinatra to sing to Garrett. Even though it was cut from the final film, Sinatra and Garrett did get a chance to shoot the song:

So, if you’re like me and love the classic feel of baseball, or you just want to get into the baseball spirit as you cheer on your favorite team (Go Dodgers!), check out “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” It’s available on DVD.

(Post-tidbit: Baseball, of course being an American sport, isn’t that popular in the UK. So figuring the British wouldn’t appreciate the “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” title as much, it was changed in the UK to “Everybody’s Cheering.”)

Friday, April 16, 2010

For the Weekend: TCM All the Way

Yay!  It's finally the weekend again, and as always, I have a new bundle of films for you to enjoy on your days off.  And this time, all of them are on TCM for your viewing pleasure.  (Woohoo, TCM!)

First up, at 12pm EST on Saturday (4/17), is Disney's "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes."  Released on the final day of 1969, it stars a young Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, a college student who gets an electric shock while working on a computer, causing his brain to become the computer. "Tennis Shoes" is the first of a trilogy of Dexter Riley movies, the other two being "Now You See Him, Now You Don't" and "The Strongest Man in the World."  All three take place at fictitious Medfield College, as well as "The Absent-Minded Professor" movies.  It was named after Medfield, Massachusetts where Walt Disney had some friends whom he visited often.  "Tennis Shoes" is your standard, light-hearted, Disney fun, sure to be fun for everyone. 

Next, at 2pm EST on Saturday, is the family drama "The Yearling" (1946).  Based on the 1938 book by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, it tells the story of young boy in the late 1800s who finds a fawn and keeps it as a pet.  As the fawn grows, though, the boy must learn harsh realities about the world.  Originally, this film started shooting in 1941 with Spencer Tracy and Anne Revere starring and Victor Fleming directing but because a number of continuous problems (like mosquitoes, a young lead growing too fast, and a director and producer not getting along at all), the project was finally cancelled (at a $500,000 loss) when the US entered World War II.  With a new cast, Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman, and new director Clarence Brown, the film was finally shot on location in Florida.  By the end of the production, though, Peck had to travel back and forth between Florida and Texas, where he started shooting his next film, "Duel in the Sun."  "Yearling" is a heart-breaking story, but an enjoyable classic anyway.

Now on Sunday, at 2:15pm EST, check out "The Palm Beach Story" (1942).  This Preston Sturges classic stars Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, and Rudy Vallee.  Written and directed by Sturges, it's one of those great, crazy, screwball comedies of the days.  Colbert and McCrea play an unhappily married couple (due to their accidental marriage, which you'll just have to watch to understand), and Colbert decides one day to run away to Palm Beach to set up residency for a divorce, and hopefully find a new rich husband in the process.  Along the way, she meets Vallee, the wealthiest man in the world, and his sister (Astor), and becomes their house guest.  McCrea, however, follows her down to Florida hoping to change her mind.  But when Colbert introduces McCrea to her new friends as her brother instead of her husband, things get hilariously complicated.  A Shakespearean-type comedy that you're sure to get a kick out of.

Finally, end your weekend on a pure-fun note, with "Blue Hawaii" (1961) at 6pm EST, truly the most famous of Elvis Presley movies (and one of his bestselling albums too).  Presley plays a young man recently out of the Army who goes to work as a tour guide back home in Hawaii, with Angela Lansbury and Joan Blackman costarring.  Filmed entirely on location, it was the first of three films Elvis shot in Hawaii.  (The other two were "Girls! Girls! Girls!" and "Paradise, Hawaiian Style.")  Lansbury plays Elvis' mother, even though she was only ten years older than him (much like in "The Manchurian Candidate").  She actually considers this the worst performance of her career, because, let's face it, Elvis' movies never required that much skill.  But it is still so much fun to watch!

So, sit back, flip on TCM, relax and enjoy.  And have a wonderful weekend!  Be back Monday with more great movie trivia.  :)  Oh, and by the way, all the films are on DVD as well in case you miss it on TCM.

(Post-tidbit:  After seeing "The Yearling" for the first time, Jane Wyman's young daughter refused to speak to her for two weeks.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Road to Perdition: Absolutely Beautiful

You know those movies that feel like you’re watching a painting come to life? All the elements are so beautifully melded together that it’s breathtaking to behold. That’s the way I feel about “Road to Perdition” (2002). I know…it’s another one of those movies that most people would look at me and say “Really? Didn’t think it was your cup of tea.” But I love this film because it is my favorite type of storytelling – a simple story with complex emotional undertones, all told through strong acting, images and music.

Based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, it tells the story of young Michael Sullivan Jr. and his father in 1931. Distant but still loving, Michael’s father is revered by all, as far as young Michael can see. But one day he discovers that his father is a killer for the mob after he witnesses his father murder several men in cold blood. Consequently young Michael’s life is flipped upside down. Fearing he will not keep the family secret, the mob boss’ son kills Michael’s mother and little brother. So, to save his son’s life, his father must take Michael on the run.

Directed by Sam Mendes (of “Revolutionary Road” and soon-to-be-ex-of-Kate-Winslet fame), the film focuses on those underlying themes of father and son, violence and its influence, and the lengths parents will go to for the safety of their children. Yet it does all this with the use of very little dialogue, at least compared to most films. (There are only six lines of dialogue in the last 20 minutes of the movie.) And he managed to put together a powerhouse cast for this inner-turmoil-based script. Tom Hanks plays the hit-man father. Paul Newman is the father-figure gangster boss. Daniel Craig (pre-Bond days) is Newman’s far-from-perfect, jealous son. And Jude Law plays the killer-for-hire chasing down Sullivan and son. A truly amazing cast to watch, especially Hanks and Newman together, two of my favorite actors ever. Absolutely beautiful to watch. (Well, except for Law’s makeup. He’s just plain creepy!)

Mendes was also able to hire the great cinematographer Conrad L. Hall for the film, their second collaboration together. (Their first was Mendes’ Oscar winning “American Beauty.”) It’s interesting how I always felt like “Perdition” was a beautiful painting, because Mendes and Hall actually drew their design inspiration from the paintings of Edward Hopper. Hopper was a realist painter from the early half of the 20th century. His most famous painting you probably recognize – “Nighthawks.” The lighting and color schemes of the film all came from Hopper’s paintings. Even the weather was kept in the same realistic tones, as the entire film was shot during winter on location in Michigan and Illinois. Another visual theme you might notice throughout the film is the matching of water and death. From the funeral scene at the start of the film, water is present at every death. And Mendes even worked hard to make his death scenes beautiful. To do that though, he took the advice of another great director, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock said he managed to create such memorable images in his films because he would shoot his love scenes like death scenes, and his death scenes like love scenes. You can truly see this in “Perdition.”

Another part of this film that makes it work so well is its music. I love film scores! So much so, that as a kid, my brother used to tease me that I didn’t own any real albums because all the cds and cassettes I owned were soundtracks. And my favorite composer is Thomas Newman, of the Hollywood Newman clan. (His father is the composer Alfred Newman, and cousin is songwriter and composer Randy Newman.) He has worked on many of my all-time favorite films, including “Wall-e” and “Finding Nemo.” Like Hall, he first worked with Mendes on “American Beauty.” And I must say, all three know how to mix their skills together to suck you into an amazing world, the way films were born to do.

13-year-old Tyler Hoechlin won the role of Tom Hanks’ son and main kid Michael Sullivan in a nationwide search that included over 2000 young boys. Only his third film, but his first big budget feature, he managed to hold his own against the heavyweights acting along with him. He also had to learn to drive for the film, for which being a typical boy, he was only too happy to do. Even though he managed the task easily, they still put a stunt driver in the back seat with his own set of steering controls when he drove, just in case.

Sadly this was the final film for cinematographer Hall and the final on-screen feature film for Newman. (Newman’s last film acting of any kind was “Cars” in 2006.) Newman didn’t pass away until 2008, but Hall passed away in January 2003, just a couple of months before he would posthumously win his final Oscar for “Perdition.” I think it’s kind of poetic that the last live-action film these two men worked on was together, because they had worked together three times before on some of the biggest heavy hitters of their careers– “Harper,” “Cool Hand Luke,” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

So, when you’re in the mood for watching something beautiful, check out “Road to Perdition.” A film that anyone who loves the art of saying a thousand things without saying a word through acting, images or music should enjoy. Have a great week, everyone!

(Post-tidbit: One of the banks used for a robbery scene was absolutely perfect except it faced the wrong direction. So in true movie magic fashion, the production designer flipped signs, license plates, even steering wheels in cars, so that the scene could be flipped around to the correct direction in post-production.)

Friday, April 9, 2010

For the Weekend: Little Gems

Finally, it's another weekend. And thank goodness because it could not get here soon enough. I hope everyone's planning to relax as much as I am this weekend. And for those relaxing hours, I picked a few fun gems to enjoy.

First up is "Calendar Girls" (2003), starring the wonderful ladies Helen Mirren and Julie Waters. It is based on the true story of a group of women in England who decided to make a nude calendar to help raise enough money to buy a new sofa for the cancer wing of their local hospital, only to have the calendar gain international success. Mirren plays Chris, whose best friend Annie (Waters) loses her husband to leukemia, and therefore comes up with the idea for the unique calendar for their local WI (Women's Institute) group. There are some creative differences between the reality and film, of course. In the film, the calendar is opposed by the WI hierarchy, but in the real story, the WI was fully behind the out-of-the-box calendar. First made in 1999, the true WI group of ladies has now made five more editions of the calendar, raising £1.3 million to date for the Leukemia Research group...and a new sofa. You can catch "Calendar Girls" on Hulu right now.

Next, to honor a birthday from this past week, is "Murphy's Romance" from 1985. Birthday boy James Garner (82 years old last Wednesday) stars with Sally Field in this light-hearted romance between a 33-year-old single mother trying to start over with her son (the late Corey Haim) in a new town and the local drugstore owner. Field and director Martin Ritt had to actually fight Columbia Studios to cast Garner in the titular role. Paul Newman was the first choice for Murphy, and after his chemistry with Field in "Absence of Malice," it seemed a perfect match. However, Newman turned the role down, so Field and Ritt had only one other person in mind - Garner. At the time, though, Garner was considered just a television star, and in those days, the television and movie worlds did not mix. They won their fight for Garner though, and according to Field, she got to experience the best on-screen kiss of her career with him. "Murphy's Romance" is currently available through instant streaming on Netflix.

Finally, I highly recommend watching "At Sword's Point" on TCM this Sunday. From 1952, it is another story of the Three Musketeers but this time it is their children doing the brave swordfighting. The aging Queen Anne is in need of the Musketeers assistance again but the quartet, too old to fight themselves, send their offspring instead. Athos, Porthos, and D'Artagnan send their sons, but Aramis sends his daughter Claire (the beautiful swashbuckling queen of the time, Maureen O'Hara). At a time when women were still trying hard to gain equality with men, this film had O'Hara fighting alongside the men without a second thought by anyone. O’Hara was one of my role models as a kid, and in this film, you can see why. She is both strong and beautiful, everything I wanted to be. "At Sword's Point" is not on DVD or online, so be sure to catch it this Sunday (4/10) at 7:30am EST on TCM.

So, I recommend you sit back and relax this weekend. You all deserve it. Enjoy your weekend everyone! Oh, and if you are that blessed, be sure to give all those strong women in your life a kiss. Have fun and I'll see you Monday!

(Post-tidbit: Alan Hale Jr. (the Skipper from “Gilligan’s Island”) plays the son of Porthos in “At Sword’s Point,” following real life a little since his father Alan Hale Sr. played Porthos in “The Man in the Iron Mask” in 1939.)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Monty Python and the Holy Grail: LOL!!!

Did everyone have a nice Easter weekend?  My weekend brain was still stuck on Monty Python, so I figured I would discuss my favorite Python film today - "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."  My love for this film can be attributed to one person, my big brother.  I remember as a kid listening to my brother Stephen saying "We are the knights that say Ni" and getting such a kick out of it.  "Holy Grail" is one of those movies that brought my brother and me close together.  Not that we were ever really bickering siblings (except maybe when I was really little and annoying), but watching this movie with him was always so much fun.  (Hey, Stephen, we should do it again sometime soon!)

Released in 1975, "Holy Grail" was the second film from the Python boys - Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin - but the first of their films to consist of original material.  ("And Now for Something Completely Different" was a compellation of some of their sketches from their BBC show "Monty Python's Flying Circus.")  Written during the break between the third and fourth seasons of their show, it pokes fun at the Middle Ages and the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  All six played the 40-odd major roles in the film, with Chapman mainly playing Arthur.  (Palin actually had the most roles of all - 12 characters.)

The film had an extremely tiny budget, only £150,000 (about $350,000). Most of that money was financed by Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, for all three bands were huge fans of the Python's TV show.  However, with such a tiny budget, they had to make some cuts.  Most noticeably is the use of cocoanuts instead of real horses.  Originally, all the knights were to ride real horses, but when the troupe realized how expensive they would be, they turned to the cocoanuts instead.  The Python boys played the joke up beautifully though, making it one of the funniest bits in the film.  They even used it in some of the foreign titles for "Holy Grail."  (The German title translates to "The Knights of the Cocoanuts.")

The film was mainly shot on location in Scotland at two privately-owned castles.  They were to shot at more places in Scotland, but just a couple of weeks before shooting began, the Scottish Department of the Environment withdrew their permission to shoot in some of the government-owned castles, saying the script diminished the respect and history of the sites themselves.  Therefore, most of the castle shots are one castle from different angles.  They did manage to build a couple of 10-foot, flat plywood models of castles for background shots, most notably for Camelot, hence the joke "It's only a model."  However, the models had a tendency to blow over during scenes, so the boys used it as an inside joke in the trailer.
All the members of Monty Python agree that this was the worst shooting experience.  Not only did they have to deal with the cold, damp Scottish weather, the hotel that they were all staying at had a very limited supply of hot water and only one bathroom.  So at the end of each shooting day, the guys would race each other back to the hotel to try and get the warmer cleaning.  Also at the time, Graham Chapman was suffering greatly from his alcoholism and having delirium tremens.  It was so bad that when they were shooting the Bridge of Death scene, the first assistant director had to double for Chapman crossing the bridge.  Another hard part was first-time director Terry Gilliam.  Though the troupe all thought Gilliam was great at the visual matters, he was not at all great at the practical, budget, or acting matters.  He finally got so frustrated with the other troupe members that he just gave up one day and laid down under a tree.  Terry Jones then had to step up and finish directing the film.  The troupe liked him directing much more, and therefore Jones ended up directing all the rest of the Python films.
John Cleese recently stated that he finds it interesting that "Holy Grail" is usually considered the best Monty Python film in the US, whereas the UK favors "Life of Brian" more.  He remarked on that because he feels "Holy Grail" is the less mature of the two.  Well then, I'm proud to be a less mature American.  And if you're in for some good, fun belly laughs this week too, check out "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
(Post-tidbit:  There were several scripted scenes that were never shot for the film, such as more Knights who say Nii and detective scenes.  One bit left out - Arthur and his knights finally finding the grail in Harrod's, a huge department store in London.)

Friday, April 2, 2010

For the Weekend: What is Easter to You

Easter. It’s that holiday that some think of for religious reasons, some for candy reasons, and some for 3-day weekend reasons. Whatever your celebration is though, I’ve picked out a few different options for you to choose from, in different places, so it’s sure to fit any Easter weekend style.

First is “Easter Parade” from 1948, starring Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Peter Lawford, and Ann Miller. It is a wonderful musical about a girl (Garland) who joins up with a dance star (Astaire), changing up his style and his life, only to fall in love and became a huge success. This was the only movie to pair up Garland and Astaire. In fact, the two had never even met before the making of this film. So when the first scene to be shot turned out to be a kissing scene between the two, Garland kept delaying the start until they were properly introduced. Originally, Gene Kelly was supposed to star opposite Garland, but he ended up breaking his ankle prior to filming when he got a little angry after losing a volleyball game. Also, Cyd Charisse was supposed to be in Ann Miller’s role, but she had some torn ligaments in her knees and couldn’t perform. However, Miller wasn’t in much better shape. She had hurt her back when her husband pushed her down some stairs, so many of her dances were done wearing a back brace. She still managed some amazing dances though. You can catch this Irving Berlin spectacle on TCM Sunday at 10am EST.

(A deleted number from "Easter Parade")

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” from 1979. It’s the story of Brian (of course) who is born in the manger next door to Jesus on the same day, and therefore has a life filled with being mistaken for his birth mate. As always, the majority of the roles are played by the six members of Monty Python, with Graham Chapman in the title role. The Python guys actually came up with this movie idea after being bombarded by reporters after “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” came out. After being asked for the millionth time “What is your next project going to be,” Eric Idol sarcastically threw out “Jesus Christ - Lust for Glory” to shut them up. The group, however, started playing around with the idea, and thus, “Life of Brian” was born. This Python gem is available on DVD.

And if you’re in need of family fare, but want to get out of the house too, I suggest “How to Train Your Dragon” in theaters now. Of course, this has absolutely nothing to do with Easter, but it’s a fun story your whole family should enjoy. Based on the children’s book by Cressida Cowell, it tells the story of Hiccup, a young teenage Viking, who longs to be a dragon slayer, but, unwilling to kill them, befriends a dragon (whom he names Toothless) instead. You may notice some similarities between Toothless and Stitch from Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch.” This is no coincidence. “Dragon” was directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, the writer-directors of “Lilo & Stitch.” It’s a heartwarming, fun adventure for all.

So, whatever your preference this weekend, I hope you have a wonderful time with your holiday. Enjoy! And I’ll be back Monday with another of my favorite films!

(Post-tidbit: “Life of Brian” was banned in many countries for blasphemy, including Norway and Ireland. Norway lifted their ban in 1980 and Ireland in 1987.)